Part 2 - Part
3 - Part 4
After the heady excitement of Leeds United's debut season in
the Champions League, the summer of 2001 was one of consolidation,
as manager David O'Leary and chairman Peter Ridsdale concentrated
on retaining their players rather than strengthening the squad.
There were no close season signings, while the club's rivals
were splashing out big money to reinforce their own assault on
the silverware. Arsenal brought in Francis Jeffers, Giovanni van
Bronckhorst and Sol Campbell, while Chelsea strengthened their
midfield by signing Frank Lampard and Emmanuel Petit. Champions
Manchester United went even further by breaking the British transfer
record twice, first by finally capturing long term target Ruud
van Nistelrooy, and then adding the Argentinian midfielder Juan
The management at Elland Road instead concentrated on securing
the long term future of a number of their stars, with Mark Viduka
and Olivier Dacourt negotiating improved five year deals, despite
the constant rumours that they would soon be plying their trade
on the continent.
A lack of signings, however, had to be set in the context of
the team's excellent form in the Spring, when they had been so
close to unexpectedly seizing another Champions League qualification.
They had been the outstanding form side of the last four months
so began from a position of some consolidation.
Leeds kicked off their season with a satisfying 2-0 win at home
to Southampton. The win flattered United, who had struggled to
break down a tight defence, and there was a lack of sharpness
up front. It took until the 68th minute for Lee Bowyer to break
the deadlock with a low shot from the edge of the area after a
corner had only been partially cleared, but substitute Alan Smith,
who had been left on the bench as Viduka and Robbie Keane got
O'Leary's initial vote of confidence, gave the scoreline a comfortable
look with a well taken second ten minutes from time.
The ball had been played up to Smith on the edge of the area,
with his back to goal, but his smart back heel and turn threw
Dean Richards completely
off balance, giving the new England international the space to
finish in some style. O'Leary acknowledged that it had been Smith
who had made the difference: "Alan always livens things up and
he scored a wonderful goal. They came to nullify us. But Manchester
United often win with late goals in games. They grind people down
and that's what we have to do. We must be clinical."
The side's resolve and patience were to be tested to the extreme
three days later when they faced one of their biggest challenges
of the season, a trip to Highbury to meet a powerful Arsenal side,
who had kicked off their own season with a heavy win at Middlesbrough.
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Relations between Leeds and Arsenal had been bad tempered for
years. With 41 bookings and two red cards in the previous six
encounters between the two sides, referee Jeff Winter had reason
to expect a busy night and he wasn't disappointed. Tension was
high and neither side was willing to give any quarter. Challenges
flew in from the off, and the Leeds performance was reminiscent
of some of their more ugly encounters of the 1960's, as they fought
like tigers for the points.
Mark Viduka escaped with a lecture for a tackle on Robert Pires
inside the first minute, while Danny Mills got a strong word from
the referee. Winter's patience failed him, however, after eight
minutes following a tackle from behind on Ray Parlour by Eirik
Bakke, and the Norwegian received a yellow card. Bakke's midfield
partner Olivier Dacourt followed him into the book a couple of
minutes later after a foul on his fellow Frenchman, Patrick Vieira.
Leeds' characteristic spirit was getting out of hand and Lee
Bowyer and Mills soon also received cautions for ferocious challenges
on Arsenal players. United were determined not to allow the Gunners
to get into their stride, but allowed their rashness
to run over, and Arsenal were having the better of the football
that did take place.
However, Leeds continued to battle for possession and as the
half hour mark passed they gained an unexpected reward. Mills
went racing towards the area and was checked just outside by Robert
Pires. Arsenal keeper David Seaman began lining his protective
wall up, but Ian Harte showed great presence of mind, asking the
referee if he could take the free kick quickly. The Irishman curled
a 20 yard shot inside the left hand post as Seaman was caught
completely cold. Arsenal protested vehemently that they had not
been ready, but all their arguments were waved aside by Winter.
The Gunners, however, quickly forgot all the perceived wrongs
when they fashioned a neat equaliser soon afterwards. Full back
Ashley Cole was given too much space on the left flank and fired
a low cross into the area. Sylvain Wiltord threw himself at the
ball and guided a low header through a crowded area and into the
far corner of the goal.
David O'Leary made a smart tactical change just one minute after
the restart when he pulled off Alan Smith, who had taken a knock
on his ankle in the first half, and sent on David Batty to bolster
the midfield, with Harry Kewell deployed out wide on the left.
The change allowed Leeds to compete more evenly against the Gunners'
Clearly, the Yorkshire side's primary target was to avoid defeat,
but they regained the lead after 52 minutes with a sweetly worked
move. Kewell was having some joy on the left flank and fed Mark
Viduka on the left hand corner of the box. The striker bought
himself some space and slipped away from his marker, Tony Adams.
The Aussie didn't need a second chance and drove the ball back
low in at Seaman's right post to leave the Gunners deflated.
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Leeds retreated into their shell after that, content to hang
onto what they had got. However, they had little other option
as both Bowyer and Mills were dismissed after second bookable
offences. Gary Kelly and Jonathan Woodgate were sent on in the
closing stages to bolster a stretched defence, and somehow Leeds
held on for a precious three points against one of their fiercest
rivals for the Premiership.
Manager O'Leary paid tribute to the resilience and magnificent
spirit of his side afterwards, insisting it had "not been a dirty
game". The Leeds boss hailed his gutsy team's performance: "It's
right to want to clean the game up but some of the bookings for
both sides left a lot to be desired. I would rather leave it to
the experts to discuss though. They don't get into trouble but
I do. I enjoyed getting the three points.
"If you are going to do anything good, like getting into the
Champions League, you have to come to places like this, a great
stadium and a great team, and get three points when you are not
playing well. I have twice won a championship here and it's about
getting results when you are not playing well. These are three
fantastic points as this is a club who can beat anyone here.
"We showed a great spirit of togetherness. They did superbly
at the end trying to block and cover for each other. The spirit
got us through."
Outside of Elland Road, the club got fierce criticism for an
ugly lack of discipline, but the side had two wins out of two
and lay second in the table. Two goalless draws, at West Ham,
and then at home to shock pace setters Bolton Wanderers, kept
the club in the early running, but seemed to confirm that Leeds
did not have enough to offer up front, although their record of
just one goal conceded in four games highlighted a new found meanness
at the back.
Danny Mills had missed the Bolton game through suspension, but
the back five of Nigel Martyn, Mills, Rio Ferdinand, Dominic Matteo
and Ian Harte which had been so outstanding throughout the closing
run of 2000-01 had carried their wonderful form into the new campaign.
When Mills' goal against his former club Charlton, following a
Robbie Keane opener, secured a 2-0 victory a week later, Leeds
moved to top spot for the first time, and then a 3-0 demolition
of Derby at Elland Road, with Harry Kewell bagging a couple, confirmed
Leeds' ability to win points, although they were still not firing
on all cylinders.
Either side of the Derby match, UEFA Cup action had kicked off,
and an unexpected 1-0 reverse away to Portugal's CS Maritimo in
the first leg was rendered irrelevant by a routine 3-0 victory
in the return at Elland Road. Leeds had been dreadful in the first
leg, although the goal had been unfortunate, and even at home
they were still scrapping for true form. However,
O'Leary's team had flattered to deceive with their form in previous
seasons, and now it was the results which mattered rather than
the manner in which they were achieved.
Back in the Premiership, Leeds came from a goal down at Ipswich
to win 2-1, while something resembling decent form returned when
a struggling Leicester team were demolished 6-0 at Filbert Street
in the Worthington Cup. Robbie Keane's hat trick was the highlight
of a game in which Leeds always had the upper hand, after the
young Irishman opened the scoring with eleven minutes gone.
That wonderful victory put the side in good heart for a testing
run of Premiership challenges, Liverpool at Anfield, Chelsea at
Elland Road and Manchester United at Old Trafford, as October
drew on. Those three games would reveal a lot about Leeds United's
mettle as true challengers for the title.
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Leeds kicked off at Anfield on October 13 with the confidence
built by their good opening run, and a three point advantage over
their nearest rivals, Arsenal and Manchester United. Leeds just
about shaded the contest and went in at the interval with the
lead their football deserved. Harry Kewell had been marshalled
well on the left flank by Jamie Carragher, but won a corner after
27 minutes. Ferdinand rose at the far post to nod the ball back
across the area and Leeds old boy Gary McAllister could only head
weakly out towards Kewell. He shot from 12 yards out at some pace
and the ball beat goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek after a deflection.
The interval came at the right time for the Anfield side for
Leeds had started to exert some control. During the break Liverpool
boss Gerard Houllier felt some chest pains and abandoned his team
talk, leaving for checks in hospital. He was to miss much of the
season. Reds assistant Phil Thompson took charge and withdrew
Emile Heskey, throwing on the Finn Jari Litmanen after the break,
and the Reds were transformed, coming much more strongly into
Litmanen was at the heart of all Liverpool's best moves now,
although they were still only rarely troubling Nigel Martyn. However,
just as Leeds looked to have weathered the storm, the Anfield
club unexpectedly fashioned an equaliser.
England striker Robbie Fowler was given far too much space on
the edge of the box, finding the room to turn onto his favoured
left foot and chip Martyn. The crossbar saved a scrambling keeper,
but only temporarily as the ball bounced down, allowing Danny
Murphy to nod home into the unprotected net.
Both teams pushed for the winner from then on but there were
relatively few clear chances and the match finished with honours
even and Leeds still heading the Premiership table, although their
lead was now down to a single point.
A week later, while Liverpool won 4-1 at Leicester to move up
to fourth, Arsenal and Manchester United both dropped points,
with Bolton's startling win at Old Trafford further evidence that
something was seriously wrong with Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
Leeds remained on top after a bad tempered goalless draw at Elland
Road against Chelsea. The main talking point was a clumsy two-footed
challenge by Graeme Le Saux on Danny Mills, which merited a red
card but only brought a caution. David O'Leary was less fortunate
when he berated referee Paul Durkin in the tunnel at half time
over the incident, being dismissed for his trouble!
A week later, and a third massive challenge, with a trip to Old
Trafford to face Manchester United.
Despite the dropped points against Liverpool and Chelsea, Leeds
still retained a confident air, and even
though United pinned them back in the first half with a succession
of chances, the Elland Road side were unlucky on several occasions.
Surprisingly there was still no score at half time, but the ill
feeling between the two sides surfaced at the start of the second
half. England captain David Beckham fouled Robbie Keane, and the
Irish striker was lucky to escape with a yellow card when he retaliated
with a push.
Keane celebrated his escape by seemingly giving Leeds the lead
on the hour mark. He took a quick free kick that left Fabien Barthez
without a prayer, but Dermot Gallagher disallowed the goal because
he was still trying to get the United wall back the full ten yards.
It was one of Keane's final contributions as David Batty replaced
him after 70 minutes in a move designed to shore up the Leeds
midfield. Harry Kewell was pushed up on the left and brought a
new threat. Olivier Dacourt released the Australian on the left,
creating an opening for Ian Harte to fire a cross through the
area. Mark Viduka, running across to the right, looked like he
had miscalculated the ball's flight, but somehow reached it on
the edge of the six yard box to hook the ball back past Barthez
to give Leeds the lead after 78 minutes.
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Manchester United rose to the challenge and pressed the Yorkshiremen
back, but it looked like the Ferdinand-Matteo combination would
be good enough to secure the win. However, with just four minutes
remaining, the ever-reliable Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, brought
on to replace Nicky Butt, rose at the far post to beat Martyn
with a looping header.
Leeds could even have lost in the last few minutes when Martyn
pulled off two last ditch saves to deny Ruud van Nistelrooy, but
it would have been cruel justice indeed if they had returned to
Yorkshire pointless. Nevertheless, they lost their lead in the
Premiership with Aston Villa's win over Bolton later in the day
enough to relegate Leeds to second.
Afterwards David O'Leary admitted he was disappointed that his
side had not gone for the win, saying "It was a good match, a
terrific match. I'm disappointed because when we got the goal
we sat back and I wanted us to go from there. I felt we should
have won because we were controlling the game. This is why we've
got to mature and we've got many years yet to do that. They are
a fantastic bunch of lads who give everything for me. There's
great spirit here, believe me, there's a great hunger."
O'Leary could console himself with the thought that his side
had emerged relatively unscathed from a tricky run, during which
they had won through to the third round of the UEFA Cup and secured
another promising young player in England hopeful Seth Johnson.
Johnson had been signed for £7million from Derby County and at
just 22 was further evidence of O'Leary's policy of signing young
British players. His new captain Rio Ferdinand was convinced of
the quality of the signing: "Seth is a good young player who has
obviously chosen to come to Leeds to improve as a player and win
things. He's a quality player who has played for England and I
was with him on that occasion. Having been at Derby for a couple
of years he has made his name, and if he regards this move as
a step up then brilliant, as this club is only going in one direction
and that is up."
Leeds' progress in Europe had been uncertain and only a late
goal by Robbie Keane in the away leg against France's Troyes in
the second round managed to see them through. Their form had been
as patchy as in the first round against Maritimo and the French
team had shown the better spirit in their 4-2 defeat at Elland
Road. In the return, Troyes had taken a 3-1 lead to move ahead
on away goals before their tricky winger Loko had the chance to
put the tie beyond doubt on the hour mark. However, he panicked
when put clear eight yards out and fired over the bar.
With just 13 minutes to go, David Batty's uncharacteristic break
into the area allowed Mark Viduka to chip ahead and Robbie Keane
ran on to head home an undeserved goal. Nevertheless, few United
fans complained at the result.
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It was odd really, because in the previous few seasons Leeds
had failed to secure the points their football had merited, while
in 2001-02 the reverse had applied. It was noticeable that the
team still had to catch fire and had demonstrated only patchy
moments of quality. Their defensive strength was reminiscent of
former triumphs, but an irritable, frustrating approach also echoed
the style that Don Revie's team had perfected in the 1960's. Danny
Mills, Lee Bowyer and Alan Smith had earned reputations for poor
discipline, and David O'Leary seemed singularly unable to do anything
Another patchy victory, against Tottenham at Elland Road as the
season entered November, saw Leeds regain top spot, but they were
desperately lucky with only two defensive blunders in the second
allowing them to come back after falling behind to Gus Poyet's
opener. A couple of weeks later, their luck gave out when they
crashed 2-0 at Sunderland, losing their unbeaten record in the
Premiership and their leading spot.
A week later there was another bad tempered clash, at home to
Aston Villa. Alan Smith was dismissed for the fifth time in his
career after apparently elbowing Turkish defender Alpay. Smith
had earlier given Leeds the lead, and United didn't allow the
pace to drop after his dismissal, but let their concentration
slip, giving Hassan Kachloul the chance to equalise after 33 minutes.
They had opportunities to restore their lead as they dominated
the rest of the game, but struggled to score.
Just days later, it seemed that David O'Leary had lost all patience
with forwards who were guilty of foregoing chance after chance
and agreed a fee of £11million with Liverpool for the transfer
of Robbie Fowler.
The 26-year-old had suffered under Liverpool's rotation system
and found himself falling behind Michael Owen and Emile Heskey
in the Anfield pecking order, which he quoted as the main reason
for his move: "I have had nearly 15 years with Liverpool and eight
wonderful years in the Liverpool team. But I think it must be
obvious to everyone that the time has come to move on. It was
always going to be a difficult decision to leave Liverpool, because
even if I have my own reasons, the fans there were a powerful
reason for me to stay. But Leeds are a great club, and the chance
to be part of what is happening at Elland Road was too good to
miss, particularly under the current circumstances. Like every
footballer, I just want to play, and I want the chance to be part
of things. I'm not interested in recriminations, but I think this
is the best thing now for me and for Liverpool. Leeds have a fantastic
young side, and it is clear that things are happening there. The
chance to be part of that is a very exciting prospect for me."
It took Fowler a while to find his shooting boots, and his debut
came in a drab goalless draw at Fulham, as Leeds started to struggle
to see off supposedly lesser opposition. Two goals from a very
off colour Harry Kewell earned a well deserved 2-1 victory at
Blackburn, but even a two goal lead at home to Leicester, who
were struggling against relegation, could not secure a win as
the Filbert Street side fought back in the closing seconds to
escape with a 2-2 draw.
Even when Fowler did manage to find the net, with two at home
to Everton on December 19 helping to establish a 3-0 lead, a suddenly
frail Leeds defence evaporated, leaking two goals and only just
holding on for a now rare victory. It was enough, however, to
move Leeds back up to third place.
Off the field, however, more significant matters were coming
to a head. Things were happening which had a long term impact
on both Leeds' season and spirit within the Elland Road club.
Part 2 - Part
3 - Part 4
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